The effectiveness of NATO to protect member states against modern threats has come into question in recent months.
In the first of a two-part interview, Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark about NATO’s role in a post-Cold War world, and whether it is effective in fighting terrorism.
Interview Highlights: Wesley Clark
On Donald Trump’s comments about NATO
“I think it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how foreign policy works and what keeps the United States safe in the world. NATO’s absolutely vital to the United States, it’s not obsolete. It is the foundation for U.S. foreign policy. It ties the United States to Europe and that’s a group of 500 million people, those who most closely share our values in the whole world. With NATO and our alliance with Europe, we are able to affect and work against terrorism and work in favor of the policies that help the United States all over the world. If we threw that linkage out, the Unites States would be much less effective and much less powerful in the world. It’s not to say we shouldn’t be taking actions against terrorism and NATO doesn’t deploy its forces necessarily against terrorism, although NATO did deploy its forces in Afghanistan. But NATO exists for our benefit, we need it.”
“This is just part of the education of Donald Trump as he runs for public office. First he said NATO was ineffective because it did not prevent the Brussels attacks. Now he’s saying it’s obsolete because it didn’t prevent the Brussels attacks. NATO is a fundamental underpinning of U.S. national security policy and our whole diplomatic architecture in the world. We need to strengthen it.”
NATO was designed decades ago. Does it need to be changed in order to adapt to modern threats?
“What’s fundamental about NATO is it’s the pledge of one nation to every other that an attack against one is an attack against all. That’s the most powerful bond that you can create between nations. Can we do more intelligence sharing within NATO? Can we sharpen up NATO’s ability to bring international efforts to bear in order to deal with the root causes of terrorism or the manifestations of terrorism in certain places in the Middle East? Perhaps, and we should always look at that, but Russia’s coming back. So when Trump say it was designed against the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was a nuclear power that threatened Europe. Russia today is a nuclear power threatening its neighbors in Europe. Now you don’t feel this in the United States directly because our news media doesn’t focus on it, but if you were in Eastern Europe you’d find stories of Russian threats on a daily and weekly basis.
Shouldn’t NATO have done something when Russia invaded Crimea?
“Actually, Ukraine is not part of NATO. NATO wasn’t going to defend Ukraine. Ukraine’s always been in the middle ground, struggling in its national identity. Did it want to come to the West? Did it want closer alignment with Russia? So it’s been torn, ideologically, politically and personally. Many of Ukraine’s leaders wanted to be closer to the West, but their business interests were more aligned with Russia. What happened was when Putin moved into Crimea, he sent a shock through Ukraine. Ukrainians began to realize that they did not want to be associated with Russia and so he actually cost Russia its close relationship with Ukraine. Ukraine has been much more oriented to the West since 2014.”
Should Ukraine be allowed into NATO?
“I think it’s too early to answer that question. I wouldn’t say definitively never, but I would also say that we don’t need to do it right now. What Ukraine has to do is work to consolidate its democracy. Putin has many different ways that he can work against Ukraine and he’s doing all of that. The West, through NATO and indirectly through the EU, is doing what it can to help, but Ukraine is the cockpit of the struggle between East and West right now.”
What should the NATO response be to attacks against NATO member countries (Belgium, France, and Turkey)?
“When 9/11 happened, NATO wanted actually to declare what’s called Article 5 to support the United States and all these NATO nations expressed solidarity to the United States. We decided not to invoke Article 5 in NATO and we requested them not to do it and they worked individually with us because the primary response to terrorism has been through national channels. In other words, it’s our intelligence services working with the German service, the French service and the Belgium service. We don’t have a NATO intelligence service because NATO intelligence is fundamentally national intelligence. I’m sure that what’s happened behind the scenes, that you may not have seen and that didn’t necessarily go through NATO was lots of information sharing was pushed towards the Belgians, just as it was to France afterwards, and the United States and our other allies worked individually and cooperatively to bring to bear all of the information that could possibly be relevant and provide it through the right channels to the Belgian authorities in this case.”
What about a military response? Would they send forces to Syria?
“That’s a foreign policy question that individual nations have to decide. There are no NATO forces exclusive to the forces that belong to the United States, Britain, Germany and France. They have to decide individually that this is the right thing to do. I’m not one of those who believes that we should be putting Western ground forces into Syria. Were we to do so, I think NATO could be an appropriate channel of command and control to do that. But I don’t think that’s the right response because what’s happened in Syria is when Bashar al-Assad started losing authority and the domestic opposition rose up, various factions emerged inside Syria that were resisting Bashar al-Assad, and they received arms and equipment from Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some other countries including limited support from the United States. All in an effort to change the government in Syria. Over a long period of time, ISIS emerged and ISIS was there as a more cohesive force to fight against Iranian domination and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad.
"What’s happening in Syria is not just a fight against terrorism, it’s a geo-strategic struggle to define the future of the Middle East. What we learned in Iraq was, when we put Western armies in there, they may be able to defeat enemy forces, but they can’t fundamentally change cultures and societies and economies and create new forms of governance. Before we can put NATO forces in there, we’ve got to do the fundamentals, which is get an agreement between the major actors in the region as to what they want to see as the political outcome of war.”
This segment aired on April 4, 2016.